Muslims in Britain after the bombs
Liam Mac Uaid
5th August 2005
Whitechapel market is in the heart of George Gallowayís Bethnal Green constituency. Every Saturday it is packed with traders selling low priced fruit, unreliable electrical goods and cheap cigarettes. Itís also where people go to hawk ideas. There you can usually find at least three varieties of socialist newspaper. During the general election one said vote Respect. Another said donít vote Respect and the third one said donít vote for anyone at all because they are misleading you.
The Whitechapel socialists often find themselves in competition with various strands of Islamists. On the same day that one socialist group was handing out leaflets urging people not to vote Respect or Labour because the working class needs a new party, the Saviour Sect was distributing leaflets telling Muslims not to vote Respect or Labour because they would go to hell. It goes to show that you can get the same conclusions reading the Koran or misreading Trotsky.
Official figures suggest that there are 1.5 million Muslims in Britain, about 2.5% of the population. However, some community organisations put the figure at closer to two million. About half originally came from Pakistan, several hundred thousand came from Bangladesh and others from Turkey, North and East Africa and the Middle East. The largest Muslim communities are in London, the West Midlands, West Yorkshire, Lancashire and central Scotland.
All this diversity means that no is no such thing as a homogenous British Muslim community. Londonís May Day march would be a lot smaller and quieter if it were not for the presence of large numbers of Kurdish and Turkish socialists. On the other hand Britainís Somalis still have to develop a layer of political leaders who operate outside their own community. All the principal political parties stand Muslim candidates for parliamentary and local government elections. Fringe fanatics call on Muslims to abstain from British politics on the basis that their godís law is the only law that matters. The majority of Muslims routinely ignore these appeals.
There is a real class differentiation inside the British Muslim population. The majority of Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims are concentrated in the low wage, hyper-exploitation sectors of the economy. Their exploiters are usually Muslim too. In the London borough of Tower Hamlets the local Labour councilís own figures indicate that 50% of Bangladeshi families live in overcrowded accommodation. Half the councillors are Bangladeshi too. At the mosque all these earthly distinctions are supposed to melt away.
In addition to the class, political and ethnic divisions, the age division is becoming increasingly important. In common with most immigrant communities British Muslims have, in the main, voted for Labour. Prominent local figures are capable of delivering dozens or hundreds of votes. Labour has always shamelessly played this communalist game offering grants, planning permission and the opportunities for corruption offered up by privatisation. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made many young Muslims very reluctant to continue in the role of Labour voting fodder. In some East London constituencies, parts of Birmingham and Leicester this has translated into a real base of support for Respect. The extent to which this will expand depends, in large degree, on how Respect itself grows in the coming months.
It can be said with confidence that the jihadists responsible for the recent bombs in Britain do not have any mass support base. In almost every case they were either estranged from their families or their families and friends had no inkling of their jihadist beliefs. This absence of mass support is not surprising. Britainís anti-war movement immediately involved some of the key Muslim organisations and they had a large presence on the demonstrations. While the standard of living of many Muslims may be lower than that of other groups it does not induce the grinding misery that makes a bomb belt an attractive answer to earthly troubles for large numbers of people.
The British state knew that the bombers were coming. The rescue operations were impressively organised. Police units practised the Israeli tactic of an officer putting five or six bullets into a suspectís head while two others pinned him to the ground. As soon as Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes had his head blown off in a tube station, senior police officers went on TV admitting they had shot an innocent man and insisting that they would do it again if they felt it necessary.
The political response was just as well rehearsed. In the days after the bombing Tony Blair and other government ministers met large numbers of leaders of the Muslim establishment. These are the sort of people who think itís an honour to meet Prince Charles and are happy to be knighted by Queen Elizabeth. They were given the message that they had to ďroot out extremismĒ inside their own communities. Their dilemma is that the small groups which are radicalising tiny numbers with a jihadist message are very peripheral to the mosques. They have their own websites, publications, DVDs and donít have a single coherent leadership. They look at the world, are outraged by what imperialism does (though only to Muslims) and use their religious texts to come up with an Islamo-fascist response. They are lumpenised, would-be intellectuals, petty criminals whose programme calls for womenís oppression, the suppression of all democratic rights and the destruction of organisations with which they disagree. Some of them take this further and plant bombs.
To deal with them Blairís government is looking for all sorts of new powers. They want to be able to hold suspects for six months without charge, introduce an offence of calling for support for terrorism. This could mean that supporting the right of the Palestinians to wage armed struggle becomes an offence in Britain. The Uncle Toms of the Muslim establishment will be asked to persuade their young people that the police are entitled to stop, search, hold at gunpoint and racially abuse them. This started within days of the bombs.
Respect and the anti-war movement articulated the anger and a programme for many Muslims in Britain. Now they have to take the leadership in the defence of their civil liberties too. The London bombings have opened a dark, repressive period in British politics and have strengthened New Labourís authoritarian hand. How we rise to the challenge will affect British politics for years to come.
Liam Mac Uaid is an editor of Socialist Resistance.